Earlier this year I was given the chance to sample some new candy. It looked and tasted like the most popular candies we’ve been eating since we were kids. Only after trying it did I learn that it had been “unjunked,” that is, many chemicals, corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors and colors had been removed, along with a significant amount of the sugar. It’s a great example of how smart innovation can turn up in some strange places – in candy, even – and have important social and environmental benefits for people around the world.
Let’s be honest. Even with better ingredients, candy is still candy. But this candy may be an example of how innovation can be successful when it creates a better product, and proves that all of the junk and high amounts of sugar in many of our most popular foods (also exported around the world) may not need to be there in the first place.
This candy is made by Unreal™ Brands, a company in Boston that just launched this summer. One of the company’s backers is Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems who runs a venture capital firm that invests in clean technology. I’ve invested in the Khosla Ventures fund that helped start Unreal™, which was why I got an early sample of the products.
Unreal™ has a mission much bigger than just selling candy. It wants to have an impact on some very troubling trends in nutrition and public health in rich countries. Young people in the United States, for example, are estimated to get as much as half their calories from junk food and beverages. Teens consume an average of 24 teaspoons of corn syrup per day. This trend may be related to projections that by 2020, 40 percent of Americans will be clinically obese and half will be diabetic or pre-diabetic.
The idea for Unreal™ began at Halloween a couple of years ago when entrepreneur Michael Bronner and his son Nicky got into an argument over the big bag of Halloween candy that Nicky brought home. Michael wanted Nicky to throw half of it out because of the unhealthy ingredients. Of course, Nicky was not easily convinced.
Nicky and Michael began two years of R&D with a very accomplished chef, Adam Melonas, to try to create unjunked versions of America’s favorite candies that tasted just as good and cost no more than those that Nicky had brought home. Based on my taste-test, I think they’ve succeeded.
A serving of Unreal™ candy contains an average of 45 percent less sugar, 13 percent less fat, 23 percent fewer calories, 149 percent more protein and 250 percent more fiber. Impressively, all products are low GI (Glycemic Index).
Unreal™ candy is made with all real food ingredients – no corn syrup, no hydrogenated oils, and no synthetic colors, for example. Further, they work hard to ethically source their ingredients, like traceable cacao beans, and sustainable, organic palm oil. Even the dairy is from cows raised without antibiotics or added hormones. The candy is produced in the U.S. And yet they’re priced like the big, popular brands and are being sold in the same places.
Unreal™ wants its kind of innovation to spread across the food industry – to motivate the big food companies to make foods that are better for us, better for the environment, and better for the people who grow and produce the raw materials. That’s one of the reasons why Unreal™ candy is sold not just through health-food stores but in drug stores, convenience stores and supermarkets, the same places as other candy, so it can reach the people who could most benefit from products that are better for you. They also want the mainstream food manufacturers to sit up and take notice. I share their hope of inspiring other innovators in food industries.